Civil War Surgeon General, Doctor Mary Walker
Famed physician, feminist, women’s rights activist and Civil War veteran Mary Walker is best known for becoming the first woman to receive the Medal of Honor (1865). She is also known for her work as an outspoken women’s rights activist, for seeking to change the restrictive styles of women’s fashions of her day and for refusing to be held back by her gender.
For my last entry for Women’s History Month I am honoring this nearly forgotten Shero. HiStory is opening up long lost stories all over the planet. This one is home grown. Reading Mary’s Bio amazes me how she persevered by refusing to be held back by her gender, which included making changes to her restrictive clothing, eventually preferring men’s suits.
She grew up in Oswego, New York, raised by her progressive parents along with her six brothers and sisters. “Free thinkers,” they were raised to question everything. Helping on the farm, Mary often wore trousers and shirts because they were more comfortable. She was a non-comformist throughout her life. Dr. Walker was strongly opposed to traditional women’s dress, arguing they were uncomfortable, inhibited mobility, and spread dust and dirt. Her typical clothes — for which she was often mocked, punished, and treated as an oddity — were, in the 1860s, trousers with suspenders worn under a knee-length dress (later she would wear jackets and trousers almost exclusively).
In 1917, who knows why, the U.S. government changed the criteria for the Medal of Honor and withdrew Walker’s medal, though she continued to wear it thereafter. She died two years later, on February 21, 1919, in Oswego, New York. Nearly 60 years after her death, in 1977, Mary Walker’s Medal of Honor was posthumously restored by President Jimmy Carter. Here we are 25 years later and her name is still being discovered, again.
An American feminist, suffragist, suspected spy, prisoner of war and surgeon, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker remains the only woman ever to receive the Medal of Honor, which she was awarded for her service during the Civil War.